RFID Research

(Mostly cross-posted today at Pittsblog.)

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a story today touting the launch of an RFID product development center at Pitt.

Pitt’s move is interesting, more for what it doesn’t do than for what it does. Even though the project website doesn’t have much detail, the P-G’s story reports that it involves faculty from various engineering disciplines, the School of Medicine, and the School of Information Sciences.

Alas: Where are the lawyers? (Full disclosure: I had never heard about Pitt’s RFID research until I read about the Center launch in this morning’s paper.)

The policy debate over RFID technology is mostly old news. This is product development now. But the privacy, data security, and IP problems lurking here haven’t gone away, and none of those appear to be part of the agenda at Pitt.

Moreover, the legal issues aren’t simply of the “how to protect consumers from evil RFID” variety. There’s a huge upside to the RFID concept, particularly as the technology evolves. And law can help. Law has already spent a lot of time exploring the legal implications of computer networks, trying to design enforceable legal structures to make distributed computing more effective. Open source licensing, anyone?

So imagine, for example, that the tagging doesn’t come from the top down (manufacturers tag; consumers buy), but that it comes from the bottom up (consumers tag; consumers share data). Think blogging. Think cell phones. Think bar code readers. Now combine them. Then take a look, for example, at a project at Microsoft Research called Project AURA, headed by a sociologist named Marc Smith. AURA is difficult to describe in a blog post; it’s a little bit like a Wikipedia for things. It’s a very, very cool concept.

Below, Brett posted about a search for data regarding the effects of the patent system on universities’ research priorities. In a sense, this little episode is a data point in how research agendas get warped. Pitt’s RFID program appears to be focused on making the world of Del Monte and GlaxoSmithKline a better place. That’s OK; those companies have a lot of money in the pot. But I’m not sure that this is really an example of IPRs driving an allocation of research dollars that otherwise would go to more “basic” and less product-oriented research. Pitt already has RFID patents, so I suspect that this sort of program would go on anyway. If there’s a problem here, it’s not that research priorities are too concerned with technology law, but that they aren’t sufficiently concerned with the breadth of relevant law and policy. I know that it’s self-interested to say so, but in a lot of ways inter- and multi-disciplinary university-based research would be better off with more law involved, not less.

4 thoughts on “RFID Research

  1. If I may be forgiven a bit of plug here, the edited volume, Privacy and Technologies of Identity: A Cross-Disciplinary Conversation (Springer, edited by K. Strandburg and D. Raicu) will be available soon on Amazon and elsewhere. The book has chapters by computer scientists, engineers, etc., and legal scholars about various technologies, including RFID, biometrics, data mining, etc. In particular, there are 3 chapters on RFID and location tracking.

    Of course, the law chapters are great — the RFID chapter is written by Paul Schwartz. But the main reason I bring it up here is that most of the “technical chapters” are meant for non-technical readers. The RFID/GPS/locational tracking chapters are excellent and readable introductions to the technology and some of the privacy implications.

  2. Thanks for the cross-reference.

    Isn’t the tech transfer office involved? I suspect it must be, especially if Pitt already has some patents in this area. So there probably are lawyers involved to deal with the IP and business issues, but no legal academics.

    Also, if Pitt already has patents in this area, what makes you think that those patents and (commercial prospects) have not “pulled” university resources? As I mentioned in the Pull of Patents essay, this is not necessarily a bad thing at all; there are good institutional reasons for pursuing this type of focused research; e.g., the newspaper article mentions one – spurring regional economic development.

  3. Tech Transfer (at Pitt, the Office of Technology Management) was undoubtedly involved in earlier patenting efforts. In a large research university, however, it’s always possible to overestimate the extent to which different academic and business units play on the same team. (I just had lunch with two business school colleagues who have been doing field research on RFID technology for the last two years. They are as surprised about this announcement as I am.) I’m not cynical about motives; bureaucracy and inertia are powerful forces.

    As to the pull of resources, that’s a more difficult question. In the abstract, and in general, it’s likely that there is some marginal resource reallocation taking place in the shadow of patents. But I think that it’s important to break out the stage of the research, the identities of the parties, the timing and character of the funding, allocation of IPRs at the back end, and so on, before passing judgment on whether this reflects a changed institutional environment. (I agree that the value equation isn’t necessary negative.) Universities have been in the regional economic development business, at least indirectly, for a very long time, and certainly since before Bayh-Dole was enacted.

  4. I completely agree about the importance of comprehensively “breaking out” all of the variables you note and gathering data before evaluating or passing judgment on a university’s institutional environment.

    The university resource allocation question (or series of questions) is very difficult, requires a systems approach, is data intensive, and merits serious attention. There is much to do, and another data point is helpful!

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